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New Tenants’ Union Co-Hosts ‘Know Your Rights’ Workshop

City councilors raise questions about rent control in Holyoke at “Know Your Rights” workshop with Holyoke community orgs


HOLYOKE – City councilors voiced support for rent control during a public workshop in Holyoke earlier this month focused on unaffordable and substandard housing. More than 30 people, including community leaders and residents experiencing housing insecurity and homelessness, attended the February 6th educational event at the office of the social-service nonprofit Enlace de Familias. 

After listening to a presentation about tenants’ legal rights by Community Legal Aid experts, attendees shared their own experiences facing poor housing conditions, intimidation by landlords, and discrimination in the housing market. Many said they thought that rentals were simply getting too expensive for average Holyoke residents to afford. 

Holyoke city councilors Juan Anderson-Burgos, Kocayne Givner, and Jose Maldonado Velez and state representative Patricia Duffy heard from constituents dealing with mice, mold, lack of heat, and other issues. 

“What can be done?” Anderson-Burgos asked. “How are they able to get away with raising the rent, especially in places like Holyoke where people are below the poverty line, people of color – how are they getting away with that?”

Cries resounded around the room: “Because there’s no rent control!”

“Do you have a vision of how to get that started, or what it would look like?” Givner asked the attendees, gathered in a circle around the meeting room. “What exactly does accountability look like when we say ‘holding landlords and these property owners accountable?’”

Neighbor to Neighbor and Nueva Esperanza, two longstanding Holyoke nonprofits, organized the workshop with the recently-formed Tenants Union of Western Massachusetts. 

“This is how you get it started,” said Kate Talbot, a lead organizer with Neighbor to Neighbor. “The more we talk to people, the more we realize that there is a gap between what we as tenants have for rights, what that looks like on the ground, and what we as tenants know. It’s important that our reps are here to see what’s really going on.”

In December, a group of renters brought together by Neighbor to Neighbor attended a meeting of the Holyoke public safety committee to inform them of apartments in “uninhabitable” conditions, MassLive reported. People who said they struggled to find affordable housing or had prior evictions on their record said they felt they had no choice but to put up with poor conditions because they had nowhere else to go.

At the February 6th workshop, employees from Community Legal Aid and its affiliate, the Central West Justice Center, taught attendees about the state housing code, tenants’ rights, housing court, and how to navigate the complex legal landscape.

“As a tenant, you have the right to tell your landlord when things need to be fixed, and your landlord should not retaliate against you for complaining about bad conditions,” said Maya McCann, a legal fellow at the Central West Justice Center. “Our advice? Do it in writing.”

Anyone in western Massachusetts or Worcester County who has been forced out of their home, is living in substandard conditions, or suspects they have been discriminated against while applying for housing may be eligible for free legal representation from Community Legal Aid. For tenants already in housing court, the organization can help bring counterclaims against landlords and help make sure health and safety problems are addressed.

“Court can be scary, and we understand that,” McCann said, “but housing court should be a resource for you.” She emphasized that the Central West Justice Center offers legal service to anyone, regardless of immigration, housing, or employment status.

Fifth Hampden district representative Patricia Duffy told The Shoestring she was grateful that the organizations organized the event.

“Nothing is more valuable than hearing from my constituents directly,” Duffy said. “My colleagues and I know that the housing crisis is growing more serious by the day, and are working together to find solutions.”

Duffy, a member of the legislature’s new Housing For All caucus, sponsored a bill this session called An Act Relative to Problem Properties and Enhancing Fire Safety. The law would impose a fine of $20 per day on any landlord who fails to get a certificate of occupancy or a fire safety inspection, with further fines for refusing entry to a local board of health. Residents displaced by fire would have additional protections as well, as insurers would be required to provide them with accommodation until the unit is fixed.

“We live in this state that acts like we’re a tenants’ rights state, but actually, in how it plays out in our daily lives, there is a disconnect,” said Talbot. “We’re going to want our state reps to fight for rent control, so it’s great that they’re here.”

Another project of Community Legal Aid, the Springfield Fair Housing Project, runs a fair housing testing program. 

“Landlords aren’t allowed to say, ‘I don’t take Section 8,’” said program coordinator Nuri Sherif. “Requiring three times the monthly rent to be eligible, or employment verification – you can’t do that, because that is source-of-income discrimination, under Massachusetts state law.”

One attendee who is living in a shelter said that he had been repeatedly rejected from renting apartments using his Section 8 voucher. Sherif explained that this is a direct violation of anti-discrimination laws. 

The project is seeking “fair housing investigators,” volunteers who attend apartment viewings, pretend to have a particular job or living situation, and report back to Community Legal Aid whether they encountered discrimination. Sherif said the program helps the organization evaluate the everyday business practices of some of the region’s largest landlords.

“We assign individuals characteristics, we send them out, they interact with that housing provider, totally as neutral as you can, and you come back and tell me what you experienced,” Sherif said. “These are some proactive ways that [we] can hold landlords accountable for their behavior.”

Other attendees at the workshop said they had been threatened with eviction by their landlords if they reported poor conditions to the board of health. Community Legal Aid representatives said tenants should document these threats of retaliation so they can be reported to the state Commission Against Discrimination.

“Legally, in court, it leads to a more compelling case if you can say this is a pattern of behavior instead of just a one-off incident,” Sherif added. “We would love to hear if something fishy is going on…. Talking to your neighbors, talking to other tenants in your building, talking to other people on your block…. Group collective action is what is going to change behavior.”

The Tenants’ Union of Western Massachusetts has been knocking doors in the Holyoke area and elsewhere in western Massachusetts to build a broad network of renters. The new group, affiliated with the nationwide Autonomous Tenants Union Network, has been putting up information flyers and circulating a “tenants’ bill of rights” the group drafted with help from Neighbor to Neighbor.

The group aims to create neighborhood associations, “[w]hether it’s HUD housing, private units, or single- or multiple-landlord LLCs,” according to a statement shared with The Shoestring. “Through this we’ll gain numbers and the capacity to call on for the fight for rent control, reforms regarding regulations, greener living spaces, and much more.”

“There’s not many things protecting us from class discrimination in Massachusetts,” one of the union’s leaders, John “J.R.” Rivera, said at the event. “That’s why folks are so interested in things like rent control.”

A version of this article will be published in the Montague Reporter. Photo courtesy Instagram.

Sarah Robertson is an independent journalist living in western Mass.

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